We always learn so much when we launch into work with artisans in a new country. With our first container from Zimbabwe finally landed, we're looking back at ups and downs over the first nine months of this budding partnership.
How do we get ourselves into these things?
This time, we blame Chila. She's our long-time Mozambican agent and friend. She's an invaluable type who handles quality control with a fine-toothed comb, yet sends home each of our talented-but-maverick carving partners with their pride intact. She has the touch, and she can also dance like nobody's business. Chila's kind of like a cool older sister.
For a long time, we've been thinking Chila should take on a bigger role with Swahili. While planning Leslie's September 2016 trip to Mozambique, we broached the topic with Chila of branching out into more of southern Africa for us. It just makes sense to extend our network with regional talent and know-how instead of relying fully on our US-based crew.
We like serendipitous introductions, so when Chila mentioned that her textile artist friend Jane lived in Zimbabwe, we saw the stars aligning. Never mind that the country was reeling from serious turmoil, rioting and a truly mind-boggling absence of money in its banks at the time. After 22 years, we feel that if the road to find and work with new partners is full of crocodiles, we're probably heading the right direction.
Our main man Denny.
Being intrepid is one thing, but we know that if we don't have solid agents representing Swahili in-country, our network & accountability quickly fall apart. After many emails to and from Denny, we were relieved to finally meet face-to-face and find a competent, heartfelt and motivated new Zimbabwean agent. We set off together to plant a few seeds of prosperity in Zimbabwe.
Seek, and ye shall find.
Trucking around the countryside with Leslie and Chila to meet stone sculptors, metal workers and recycled art visionaries, Denny revealed a a wide and varied new world of skilled artisans challenged by their political climate yet undaunted in their need to create and provide for their families. Leslie leaned on Jenna (back home in our Oregon office) to wire funds daily so we could purchase samples. We met many new partners and were able to provide much needed cash-in-hand.
The fine art of importing.
Making orders with artisans and even finding a way to pay on time in a country with no money in its banks pales in comparison to successfully moving our first container out of Zimbabwe. We made the error of hiring a shipping agent who charged a lower fee but really mucked up our container's transit. Jenna, Betty and our Portland, OR, brokers have moved mountains to reconcile the issues so we can finally receive the shipment, but there have been no shortage of, "I have some bad news..." phone calls and emails.
When the big doors opened, we breathed a sigh of relief that we've made one big step in the right direction. Backorders from NY Now are heading out, and we can safely say we've learned valuable lessons about doing our beautiful and bizarre kind of business in Zimbabwe.
Even as I write this, Chila and Denny are finishing up exploring a crafts festival from the past weekend, meeting new partners and sending about 300 pictures a day on WhatsApp. Here we go again!